Diving in Panama is one of the most diverse locations on the planet. Panama holds an extremely impressive biodiversity, within very complex ecosystems. Panama scuba diving give you the opportunity to visit two oceans that, for all intents and purposes, are worlds apart. To the north you will be scuba diving in the Caribbean, while to the south, lies the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Panama scuba diving is unique. In the morning you can be diving in the calm waters of Bocas del Toro in the Caribbean, with fantastic visibility and all the vibrant colours of the reefs; while in the afternoon you dive the wild Pacific, with towering volcanic formations and death-defying drop-offs, in an area that draws some of the most impressive megafauna of the oceans.
The Republic of Panama is a very modern, transcontinental country that joins North America with South America. Panama controls one of the most important shipping routes, the Panama Canal, that links the North Atlantic with the North Pacific oceans, via the Caribbean. Panama officially uses two national currencies, the US dollar, and the Panamanian balboa, which has been tied to the value of the US dollar (1 USD is equal to 1 PAB). In addition, Panama is also home to the northern hemisphereís largest free trade zone, igniting a booming shopping industry with several large American-style malls.
Marine life in Panama
Translated into English, Panama aptly means 'abundance of fish'. Many people are drawn to the Pacific side of Panama, hoping to scuba dive among the megafauna that frequently visit here. Humpback whales, orcas, whale sharks, hammerheads, bull and tiger sharks, manta rays, and dolphins are all found in prolific numbers. It is also possible to see amberjacks, dorado, as well as the ferociously fast sailfish that has clocked speeds of over 100 km/h.
Best dive sites in Panama
Malpelo is a small island in the East Pacific Ocean, roughly 500 km from the mainland of Columbia. This island is part of a 300 km long, 100 km wide, volcanic ridge, with Malpelo being the only point at which the ridge breaks the surface. This dive site is of such significance, that it has been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site, covering a radius of 9 500 km around Malpelo Island.
Shark sightings in Malpelo are some of the most spectacular on Earth. It is possible to be scuba diving among shoals of over 500 hammerhead sharks and up to 1 000 silky sharks. It is also one of the only dive spots where the exceptionally rare smalltooth sand tiger has been seen alive. A member of the mackerel shark family, this predator can grow in excess of 13 feet (4 m).
Coiba Marine National Park lies in the Gulf of ChiriquÌ, in the Pacific, and was established in 1992. The 38 islands that comprise Coiba Marine Park have since been designated a Unesco World Heritage site, and are home to over 700 fish species. This is one of the few places in the world where it is possible to be scuba diving among humpback and pilot whales, hammerhead, bull and tiger sharks, as well as whale sharks; it is such a special site. The largest island in the Marine Park is Coiba, and the park itself is the second largest coral reef system in the Eastern Pacific Ocean.
Made famous as a Pacific fishing location, Hannibal Bank showcases world record sized fish. Discovered by the USS Hannibal in the early 1900s, Hannibal Bank is approximately 8 km long and 5 km wide. The incredible size and health of the fauna here can be attributed to the Humboldt Current. From a depth of over 3000 feet, this strong current carries an incredibly rich supply of plankton, injecting huge quantities of biomass into the ecosystem. This attracts an exceptionally high species count, and ensures everything is well fed and big. Scuba diving in Hannibal Bank usually takes the form of drift diving, producing a truly adrenaline-filled experience when you are confronted by tiger sharks. There are also several species of billfish, including blue and black marlin, and sailfish. Blacktip reef sharks are frequently spotted, as well as hammerheads, although not in such prolific numbers as in Coiba.
Best time to dive in Panama
Diving in Panama follows the dry season, which is usually from May until November. The tropical climate means temperatures remain consistently high, as does relative humidity. Pacific water temperatures in the summer are a very comfortable 86 Fahrenheit (28C), and drop down slightly to 78 Fahrenheit (26C) in the winter. However, rather chilly thermoclines are present at depth, and it is recommended to wear a 5 mm wetsuit. Some people do wear 7 mm suits, although at this stage it might be worth considering a membrane drysuit with a thin undersuit.
Humpback whale sightings are more prevalent between July and September, and large shoals of hammerheads usually occur from December until April, and again in November. And Silky sharks congregate into staggering shoals, upwards of 1 000 individuals, during May and August.
Experience level for diving Panama
Scuba diving in the Gulf of ChiriquÌ, Pacific, can be challenging and it is recommended that divers hold at least an Advanced Open Water certification and have logged over 30 dives. Although, the Caribbean side of Panama makes for an ideal location to learn to dive.
How do I get to Panama
If choosing a Panama liveaboard for scuba diving then it will usually set sail from Pedregal Port, to explore the sites of the Northern Pacific. The most convenient way to reach the port is to first fly to Tocumen International Airport. Recent expansions now accommodate international flights from all over the Americas, as well as several major European destinations.
Once you have landed in Tocumen, catch a flight to Enrique Malek International Airport. Pedregal Port is a short drive away from here. If you are departing from Costa Rica, it may be possible to catch a direct flight to Malek.
As always, ensure you check a country's immigration policy well in advance of your intended date of travel. However, many countries hold treaties with Panama to allow their citizens to travel visa-free for up to 180 days, facilitating a hassle-free scuba diving trip.